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Pictorial wallpaper originated in Europe in response to a demand for replicas of hand-painted scenes or of tapestry hangings. The first types, like the first prints on linen, had only the outline of the design marked by the hand block,the color being painted in later. As a substitute for the genuine material in wall decoration, wallpaper was also used to imitate stucco and tile, marble, draperies and even statuary. Some of these early forms may be found today in Colonial houses.
For those who have not inherited an ancient house already equipped with these picturesque papers, there is the opportunity to buy from wallpaper dealers good examples of old designs. Some papers are still printed by hand, and many of the designs are made from the same blocks that were used years ago. A room not too small is essential for the best display of these large-scale scenes of fields and streams, of classic ruins, of pastoral industry or sport.
The patterns have charming names. For instance, there is "Scenic America," originated in 1834, a print copy of which is made from 1,675 hand blocks. It shows New York Bay, West Point, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, Boston Harbor, together with figures of the early citizens and amiable-looking Indians.
As these old papers were mainly of English or French make, designs are often of foreign inspiration. A romantic paper known as "El Dorado" pictures, under a dreamy haze, castles and temples, grass-grown stairways, distant bridges, framed in graceful trees and luxurious vegetation. A popular type in Colonial days was the fox hunt, where the red coats of the horsemen made a brilliant note. An other, originally made in the early nineteenth century, goes by the poetic name of "Isola Bella," and presents a decorative design of trailing vines and flowers, palm trees, and luxurious tropical foliage.
These papers come in sets comprising the complete scene, made up of many strips, each twenty inches wide. The horizontal length of the different patterns varies, some requiring a greater number of strips than others. A large one is over fifty feet long. Where a room requires a longer wall surface to be covered the design is repeated. The cost of some very elaborate designs runs as high as $750 a set, although sets may be had at $150 and up. Papers made in America with a modernized air are less in price.
While the large scenic type is the most ornate, the numerous other patterns of Colonial days are also used by those who desire to introduce an old-time air in the home. Papers with small bits of scenery, often repeated, are in favor, as well as designs of flowers suggestive of old English chintz. The much used pattern of Colonial days known as pinpointa paper covered with tiny dots over its entire surface-has also been revived.
In using the pictorial wallpaper the type of room for which the original designs were made must be taken into consideration: The height of most of the strips was about six feet, which meant that only a part of the wall was covered. A wainscoting ran around the room, and between the top of it and the cornice the picture paper was placed. Many old houses show this arrangement.
In the old days no pictures were placed over the pictorial wallpaper, although mirrors were sometimes hung and did not seem out of place. The pin point pattern and the plain papers with borders allow the use of pictures without any disturbance of the general effect.
A good design in wallpaper will often be used for years. Many of the old floral patterns especially suitable for bedrooms are being revived by wallpaper designers. Some of these patterns are the same as were used a century ago in the old English chintzes. In fact, in those days it was not unusual for some particular persons to have the hangings of a room and the wallpaper made from the same blocks. These floral designs allow the use of many colors, the paper often fitting in well with the abundance of color in modern rooms.
Another important trend of wallpaper design. is the incorporation of a textured surface with the pattern. We have learned much about the importance of texture for walls through our use of roughened plaster. The paper makers, building on this idea, now produce paper that carries, besides the qualities of color and good design, a slight roughness, which, with its almost imperceptible lights and shadows, presents a satisfying surface. There are pebbled and grained papers; papers with part of the design slightly in relief; papers that stimulate the haphazard unevenness of plaster walls.
There may be objections to this imitation of one material by another. Time and use will decide whether this new idea is to become as respectable, artistically, as was the eighteenth-century marbled paper now found in old houses and still reproduced. Wallpaper, in its designs, has always been imitative. The old scenic papers were once called "the poor man's tapestries," for they were a substitute for expensive hangings and hand-painted walls. The designs of chintzes, damasks and velvets were reproduced early in the 350 years that we have had wallpaper. Imitations of wood paneling, marble columns and walls were once popular, and even moldings were reproduced with such fidelity to light and shade that they could hardly be told from the real thing.
Glazed wallpaper that will withstand the dampness of the kitchen or of the bathroom now receives a coating after it is on the wall-treatment that renders it washable. Some varnishes lend a tone of mellow age to wallpaper, which, in the case of old designs reproduced, is an effective decorative aid. A finish is now possible, however, that will change only slightly the tone of the paper, so that any wall may be treated and still retain the brilliance of the original. Paper may be had also that is invisibly waterproofed when it is manufactured. The finishing of paper by such means is useful in playrooms, children's bedrooms, hallways, bathrooms and kitchens, where the paper is particularly in danger of becoming soiled or subjected to dampness.
A great deal depends upon suiting the wallpaper to the rest of the furnishings. Some of the dissatisfaction with wallpaper in the past doubtless arose from disregarding this point. With smart modern furniture the wallpaper may well be in a similar sophisticated mode. Furniture of early American, Georgian English or French country styles may have as settings appropriate types of paper.
After the kind of paper has been decided upon, the color is of next importance, for it must harmonize with the principal hues of the other furnishings. Scale of pattern should be carefully considered also. Large units of design should be shunned in most cases, and paper with tiny designs that have too much space between the units. The successful pattern is one that covers the wall space without obtruding into the room.
The decorative usefulness of a molding or border at the point where the wallpaper ends or joins the ceiling should also be emphasized. If of a color that harmonizes with the general tone of the paper, this border will allow the eye more easily to make the transition to the lighter ceiling paper and bind in the design on the walls, just as the borders of a panel hold the pattern within circumscribed limits.
The ceiling is just as important as floors or walls, considered from the point of view of a harmonious ensemble. Some daring innovators have applied a pattern paper to the ceiling. This latter treatment is extremely useful in upperstory rooms where the contours of the roof cut up the usual flat expanse of ceiling.